Sunday, February 20, 2022

What a disaster: Can't you see the morning after?


Directed by Irwin Allen
Written by Nelson Gidding (based on the novel by Paul Gallico)

Spoilers: moderate

Though the credit properly goes to Paul Gallico, upon whom producer Irwin Allen prevailed to write a sequel to his novel (and who died without quite finishing it, though it got published anyway), I can be generous enough to give Beyond the Poseidon Adventure this much praise: it comes up with a genuinely good idea to continue the story of the SS Poseidon, despite nothing about The Poseidon Adventure suggesting that it should be continued, and a great deal about The Poseidon Adventure dictating that it couldn't be.

That idea, in precis, is as follows: after the Poseidon flips and begins to sink, a team of hard-on-their-luck mariners happens across the wreck.  The captain, Mike Turner (Michael Caine), is deep in hock and, thanks to the same tsunami that wiped out the Poseidon causing him to lose his cargo, he probably won't even be able keep his boat.  When he hatches a plan to turn things around by taking on the dangerous job of salvaging all the cash and gold and diamonds that any luxury liner would likely have safekept for its wealthy passengers, his first mate Wilbur (Karl Malden) agrees it's a good idea, as does their passenger, Celeste (Sally Field), a young woman who rescued Wilbur during a bar fight the previous night, and previously was just trying to get to Africa.  However, they're not the only ones after the Poseidon, for as soon as they arrive so does a mysterious team of "aid workers," led by the soft-spoken but ineffably-sinister "Dr. Stefan Svevo" (Telly Savalas), who claims that all he and the stern, taciturn "medics" on his boat want is to render aid to survivors.  In truth, Svevo is after a much bigger prize than mere bank notes or gold: he's here for the shipment that he was secretly transporting across the Mediterranean aboard the Poseidon, labeled "Sprague Parts," which is in fact a box with enough plutonium in it for a small, but potent, nuclear arsenal.

Now, the book may well have played it a little differently and a little more plausibly (I know for a fact that it doesn't blithely end with an unacknowledged ecological catastrophe the way this one does), but it's still pretty good.  It's not necessarily great in the details: the existence of plutonium on a civilian cruise liner explicitly headed for the scrapyard can be explained with less labor than the film's detractors sometimes claim (one of the Poseidon's ports-of-call was Israel, after all, and Israel's nuclear program has always been secretive, though in this period Israel smuggled yellowcake and processed it themselves); but on the other hand, the abandonment of the Poseidon by the local Mediterranean rescue services after no more than twelve hours, with the ship not even fully sunk yet, is complete nonsense, a constant background distraction, and actually does rise to the level of a problem.  Indeed, before I saw Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (let's just call it BtPA, thanks), I'd somehow gotten it into my mind that it was something of a legitimate narrative experimentless sequel than sidequel, with BtPA's plot occurring simultaneously alongside the events of the first film, only in different parts of the ship, so that while Michael Caine was avariciously searching for the purser's office, Gene Hackman was somewhere else, raging at his absent God for having to sacrifice himself for his fellow man.  This would, at least, explain why the parts Michael Caine's exploring aren't completely flooded.  I had, of course, also assumed it was a little more ambiguous in its moral complexionI'd assumed that it leaned further toward the "looting" end of the definition of the term "salvage," rather than toward the actual concept as it exists in maritime law (though while I'm afraid I know very little about maritime law, my strong suspicion from its depiction here is that BtPA knows even less).

Nevertheless, all told, it's a damned fine hook for any movie, and, miraculously, it's even a moderately compelling excuse to revisit The Poseidon Adventure in particular.  It is, in any case, a better premise than the one Allen had slapped together in the months immediately after The Poseidon Adventure's blockbuster success, which would've had the survivors of the Poseidon called before an investigative panel in Austria (the nation of the Poseidon's registry, apparently), only to put them on a mountain train during a tunnel collapse.  Honestly, I kind of like the sheer "fuck you-ness" of this idea, in regards to the Poseidon's traumatized survivors; I also like the distinct species of disaster.  But I can see why they never made itThe Poseidon Adventure killed its best characters already, which is one reason why The Poseidon Adventure is a masterpiece of its genre, and revisiting the ones who lived probably never really held that much appeal.  "But what of Nonnie?" no one ever said.  But whatever else BtPA is, it's inventive with established continuity in ways that Airport's anthologized sequels didn't need to be, though the temptation to do The ______ Adventure with a whole new shipwreck must have been overwhelming.

None of this should be taken to overlook the desperation of the move, which clings to BtPA like a stink: in the May of 1979, Allen was barely ten months out from The Swarm, the film that put a bullet in the disaster genre's heartthough it obviously took a little longer before studios finally realized it had killed it.  BtPA was already in the pipeline when that happened, but the amazingly quick turnaround between films (the smallest gap between Allen's major disaster films by a solid year) prompts me to groundless speculation: one gets the distinct feeling that Allen saw the crisis of his career coming, and he must've had some inkling that, at the very least, The Swarm was a risk.  And so the instant he was done with the heavy lifting of The Swarm's production, he got to work on what he naturally thought was a safer bet, racing ahead before Warner Bros. could figure out that disaster cinema was over, and Allen had been setting their money on fire and throwing a bunch of bees at the flames.  (It didn't work out: BtPA was an even bigger bomb.)  Of course, I actually like The Swarm, but maybe it says something truly horrible about BtPA that I think The Swarm is a much better movie.  Other than BtPA's more-responsible runtime (115 minutes) and its general straightforwardness (rather than The Swarm's multitude of sprawling, go-nowhere B-plots), The Swarm is the better movie in basically every possible respecteven The Swarm's aggressive stupidity has a certain self-parodying ecstasy to it, while BtPA is merely lunkheaded, and in mostly-dull ways.

It certainly doesn't correct any of The Swarm's other fundamental problemsfor example, it brings back Caine, who held these movies (and, at this point, perhaps his acting career in general) in contempt.  Yet it adds several fundamental problems of its own, starting with a very un-disaster movie narrative structure that doesn't quite begin the movie "in medias res," but comes close, introducing our three (for lack of a better term) leads already aboard Mike's boat, and giving them literally just one scene of peace before it's thrown the wreck of the Poseidon at them.  Accordingly, the broadly-painted-but-nonetheless-careful characterization of The Poseidon Adventure is nowhere here to be found.  (It does not help, either, that every scene aboard Mike's boat takes recourse to some unconvincing props and monstrous early bluescreen effects that make it feel like the SNL skit version of itself, and it's shocking that Allen was willing to let this be our very first impression of his film.)  To some degree, I can recognize there was no way around this, because while Mike, Wilbur, and Celeste shall be obliged to pick up a lot of stray survivors still clinging to life inside the sinking vessel so this can be "a disaster movie" in more than just its pedigree, it would be weird to meet them before Mike, Wilbur, and Celeste do.  Yet I'm not sure this meant we couldn't meet Mike, Wilbur, and Celeste themselves, except in a brief, reductive, "shout at each other in your character's stereotypical register" prologue.

And that brings us to the shouting: the insuperable problem of BtPA isn't anything to do with structure or concept but the basic and immutable fact that its characters are absolute trash, so drills-in-your-ears terrible that you want to make hyperbolic statements like "the least obnoxious character in BtPA is more obnoxious than the most obnoxious character in The Poseidon Adventure," and while this isn't quite true, it's only because a few characters default to "not obnoxious" because they're not much of anything.  Though it's something that Savalas's villain is more likeable than most of the good guys, to the point you'd almost rather be a member of his party than Mike's; even if he's an evil arms dealer who frequently murders his companions, he's at least less shrill about it.  The worst offender is this film's attempt at making Ernest Borgnine's turn in The Poseidon Adventure feel like an evocation of even-keeled, serene calm.  This is Frank Mazetti (Peter Boyle), who is SEARCHING. FOR. HIS. DAUGHTER. in the most histrionic way possiblethough like a video game character, when Mike and company find him, it appears he's spent the last twelve hours waiting for them, as he's been holed up in the ship's gym with the ship's nurse, Gina (Shirley Jones), and a glamorous-passenger-with-a-secret, Suzanne Constantine (Veronica Hamel).  Somehow, he's worse after he finds his daughter (Angela Cartwright), because now Frank's animating obsession is that she and a surviving crewman (Mark Harmon) might, at some point after this is all over, date.

So Frank's the clear champion, Boyle's high-pitched, whiney performance always emphasizing the worst aspects of the character-as-written, but he does have competition.  This comes from Tex (Slim Pickens), whom they find drunk in the wine room, and played as such a broad caricature that it's a few minutes before you can determine that the joke is not, in fact, that he got so drunk this New Year's Eve he doesn't know the ship's capsized.  It also comes from Celeste, who as a "main" character shouldn't be this way, but is, and Field incarnates Celeste as a metastaticized mass of spunkiness, supplying the film with a surfeit of bland quips.  (Eventually a final pair, blind old man Harold Meredith (Jack Warden) and his wife Hannah (Shirley Knight), are added to the group, and they're not so badthough this is assuredly because "blind" was held to be enough in and of itself, and it probably doesn't hurt that they're introduced last.) But that's how it goes: even the least-interesting or loudest-mouthed member of The Poseidon Adventure's cast could still claim your sympathy; BtPA offers at least one and possibly three characters whom you actively wish dead.  Caine is perhaps something of a slightly-less-shouty anchor, and one detects modest efforts to actually "act" in him, mostly a marginally-successful attempt to smooth out a screenplay that flips Mike's empathy switch to the "on" position about halfway through.

Despite this rabble, BtPA doesn't do much with them: for the most part, it forgets to be a disaster movie at all, in favor of being a mediocre actioner revolving around Svevo's need to eliminate Mike's party once they discover he's not what he said he was.  There are only about twenty minutes where it even pretends to function as a disaster movie.  It somewhat repeats beats from The Poseidon Adventure (with the added wrinkle of its blind character), yet it is, undoubtedly, the most successful phase of the film even if it doesn't care that much about it.  Most of the cast somehow survives (to be honest, I would have respected the movie more if it had had the guts to kill Harold, who, of course, would be the most likely to die; but he and Hannah at least manage to activate your emotions, and they're the centers of the only scenes that truly feel of a piece with this film's predecessor).  But BtPA also forgets to be what it's said it was, a disaster-exploiting heist movie; Mike finds his gold pretty much immediately with few complications and no real moral friction.  If he'd just brought a backpack he probably would've kept his treasure.  And so it's predominantly just that mediocre thriller.

I wonder if the haste with which BtPA was put together had something to do with it, but by this point Allen had lost his craftsmen, and was doubling down on a director who had historically absolutely relied on other talents to clarify his vision, that being, of course, Irwin Allen himself.  There's not a single crew head repeated from The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno or even The Swarm (even Allen's customary writer, Stirling Silliphant, for his sins on The Swarm, is replaced by Nelson Gidding, who writes about five good, memorable lines, and about fifty awful ones).  The only "name" in the crew was production designer E. Preston Ames, now in the final phase of his career, and though this implies more than it should (hey, he'd just done Logan's Run), as far as his genre bona fides go, Airport and Earthquake are more "just fine" design than "great."

 could make plausible claim to being Ames's best disaster film effort, anyway: Allen was still good at what producers are supposed to do, this being acquiring funds and ensuring they were spent appropriately, and Ames has some measurable fun recreating the cool idea of an upside-down ship, most of his locations being ones we didn't see last time.  And Allen puts in a couple of genuinely impressive "shit crashes through multiple levels of the ship" sequences that are good and loud and enjoyably gaudy.  But even here, Ames and Allen feel like they're holding their imaginations back: the single most potentially-interesting set in the film, involving cars lashed precariously to the "deck" that's now a ceiling, never winds up becoming the terrifying set-piece it obviously was originally intended to be.  Meanwhile, cinematographer Joseph Biroc seems not to have been asked to even try replicating the phantasmal complexion of Harold Stine's photography in The Poseidon Adventure (frankly, Biroc doesn't seem to have been asked to remember that being in an upside-down ship should affect the way his lighting set-ups work), and though there's a hint of an idea in the prevalence of red emergency lighting, BtPA never really gets much atmosphere or mood to call its own, other than, again, the atmosphere and mood of a middling nuke thriller directed by somebody whose skills have somehow atrophied from The Swarm, where he sometimes forgets that in Panavision you don't have to disaggregate conversations into fractured close-ups full of negative space.

Yet there's a point, maybe halfway through, where BtPA starts to somewhat click; "doing The Poseidon Adventure again with dipshits and gunfights" isn't that honorable, but it has its pleasures, and I could've given it a pass.  Then Allen forgets, I believe literally forgets, to film a major death.  I swear to God: I rewound it because I thought I'd missed something.  But I didn't.  A character dies by vanishing from the movie, to be half-assedly explained in the denouement.  Yes, I rate Allen higher than most, and I still never thought he was a genius, outside of conceiving action sequences for others to execute on his behalf (which, hey, is what "a filmmaker" is supposed to do); but I'd never questioned his ability to tell a story with basic legibility.  That Beyond the Posiedon Adventure forces me to do so makes me genuinely sad.

Score: 4/10

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